NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 26 – Taking a lead from the success of fast-moving consumer products in rural areas, local African seed companies and NGOs are reducing the size of packets of seeds and fertilizers to help smallholder farmers take the first steps to scale-up production.
Like cell phone scratch cards, small packets of high-quality seeds can be bought for just a few shillings, enabling farmers to try out the seed before risking their money on large purchases for uncertain results.
This new approach for seed marketing is being linked to thousands of small demonstration plots where even the most remote farmers can see the benefits of using improved seed. Together, these innovations could herald a revolution in an area key to Africa’s Green Revolution: getting improved technologies to poor, smallholder farmers across Africa’s vast agricultural landscape.
"Small packets could unlock Africa\’s farm potential by empowering farmers to try out new, harvest-boosting crop varieties that are best suited to their needs," said George Bigirwa of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which hosted the Nairobi meeting of seed experts, entrepreneurs and others involved in Africa\’s rapidly growing seed sector.
Among the participants were representatives from over 50 African seed companies who came to Kenya to see how one AGRA grantee, the Nakuru-based seed company, Leldet Ltd, has used small packages to stimulate the demand for seeds and increase farmers’ access to inputs.
"Adopting a new seed variety is a risky proposition for small-scale farmers who depend on their harvest to feed their family," said Joe DeVries, Director of AGRA\’s Program for Africa\’s Seed Systems (PASS). "Making new seeds available to farmers in small packets and allowing them to see the crop growing in their area can reduce this risk and help open millions more farmers’ eyes to the importance of planting improved seed.”
In some African countries, as few as four percent of small-scale farmers use improved seed. In the continent as a whole, fewer than one-third have access to high-yielding, locally-adapted seeds of staple food crops. The dearth of good seed has been a major constraint for farmers trying to improve their yields.
Leldet, Ltd, a small Kenyan seed company, and Farm Input Promotions Africa (FIPS-Africa), a Nairobi-based not-for-profit organisation that advises smallholder farmers on farm input use and land management practices, shared their experiences with conference participants on the success of field demonstrations in showing farmers the benefits of improved varieties of maize, beans, cowpeas and pigeon peas and stimulating demand for improved seed. Farmer groups and agro-dealer networks then promote the mini-packs of seed and fertilizer to encourage their adoption by farmers across the country.
Small packs range in size from 50g to 600g versus the standard pack size of two kilograms. The smallest packs are often accepted by farmers as a means of receiving their balance on larger purchases.
"A whole new seed economy is growing in Africa that is based on the needs of the majority—poor, small-scale farmers who up until recently were completely in the shadows of agri-business," said Mr DeVries. "This is all about recognizing the importance of the people at the ‘bottom of the pyramid,’ not through handouts which cannot be sustained, but through smart and local uses of entrepreneurship that can grow over time."
"Lotions, detergents, mobile phone scratch cards and other fast-moving consumer products are often found in small sizes, packaged according to consumers needs," said Paul Siward of FIPS-Africa. “In most rural shops, seed and fertilizers are sold in bulk sizes that most poor farmers cannot afford. Smallholder farmers are largely an untapped, underserved market. "
For example, fertilizer is often sold in 50 kilogram bags for Sh2,500-3,000.
With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, DfID, USAID, and AGRA, and in collaboration with local private seed and fertilizer companies and the Ministry of Agriculture, FIPS-Africa has set up thousands of crop demonstration plots in seven districts around Kenya since the project began in 2003.
"Farmers can see exactly what is being planted and the results," Mr Siward said. "One bag is enough for rows of maize. Farmers are taught how to place the seed, how to use fertilizer, and they can see it working. This process puts the farmer at the center of extension because they learn by doing."
As part of its range of interventions across Africa\’s farm value chain, AGRA is supporting the production and distribution of improved crop varieties through private and public channels, including local African seed companies, public community seed initiatives and public extension services.
"We need to re-double efforts to produce and get more improved seed into the hands of farmers," said Namanga Ngongi, president of AGRA. "But seed alone will not solve Africa\’s food woes. We need a broad framework for agricultural development in Africa. AGRA is committed to supporting the structures necessary to transform African agriculture and create the dynamism that farmers need to boost their production."